You are on page 1of 5

ontological wolf viveiros

we should move from the epistemological critique of

ethnographic authority to the ontological determination
of ethnographic alterity, the elucidation of the terms of
the ontological self-determination of the other, in
other words, to a redefinition of anthropology as the
comparative (i.e. expansive) description of tautegorical





anthropology of ontology is anthropology as ontology;
not the comparison of ontologies, but comparison as
anthropology becames comparative metaphysics -

redescription of ourselves in the light of alterity ( Maniglier)

part 2 one or several wolves?

describe ontologies as intractable sets of

presuppositions that are aggressively contradictory
with other similar sets, and/or as crossing one another
in the pre-space of chaos without any mutual
interference whatsoever.
And in an important sense, what we have been

advocating was essentially an ontological turn of the

epistemological screw a methodological tightening
up of our ethnographic descriptions, which, rather than
allowing us to discover new things about the other,
marked the limits ontological, not critical of what
can be known (and then said) about that other.
the turn of the native, the act of making room for the
other (faire la place aux autres Stengers), the
obligation of letting the natives, whoever they are,
have it, ontologically speaking, their own way. Lastly,
the notion of a turn means, and here I paraphrase
Holbraad again, the act of deformation-translationvariation of certain conceptual certainties of the analyst
so as to make sense, I mean, make real (which does not
mean make actual) the certainties or, for that matter,
the perplexities of the other. As Patrice Maniglier also
wrote, it is the fact of variation that makes us think,
never the naked fact [le fait nu, the naked truth, one
might say] of whatever is the case.13

What Deleuze names Autrui is the less a concrete,

already actualised other as against a self than the
structure that makes exist a self and an other. This
structure is that of possibility: Autrui is the possibility,
the threat or promise of another world contained in the
face/gaze of the other, i.e. in its perspective.
Deleuze indicated the limiting condition that allowed
him to determine the concept of the Other: concentrate
on, freeze-frame your description at the moment in
which the expressed still has no existence (for us)
beyond that which expresses it the Other as the

expression of a possible world. Anthropology can make

good use of this advice: maintaining an Others values
implicit does not mean celebrating some numinous
mystery that they might hide, but rather amounts to
refusing to actualise the possibilities expressed by
indigenous thought choosing to sustain them as
possible indefinitely, neither dismissing them as the
fantasies of others, nor by fantasising ourselves that
they may gain their reality for us. The Deleuzian
moment in which the world of the Other does not exist
beyond its expression transforms itself into an abiding
condition, that is, a condition internal to the
anthropological relation, which renders this possibility
virtual. Anthropologys role, then, is not that of
explaining the world of the other, but rather of
multiplying our world, filling it with all of those things
expressed that do not exist beyond their expression
(Deleuze). Do not explain too much, do not try to
actualise the possibilities immanent to others thought,
but endeavour to sustain them as possible indefinitely.15
We have been there as anthropologists, I am afraid.
When a shaman shows you a magic arrow extracted
from a sick man, a medium gets possessed by a god, a
sorcerer laboriously constructs a voodoo doll, we only
see one thing: Society (belief, power, fetishism). In
other words, we only see ourselves.
The so-called ontological turn is nothing more than a
change in the disciplinary language-game that forbids,
by declaring it an illegal move, such an analytical
facility from the anthropologists part. I have a feeling
that much of the uneasiness or outright rejection of the
ontological turn rhetorics comes from that restriction of
the freedom allowed to the analyst: the freedom to stay
put, to not move, to indulge in the heliocentric trick of
making the observed turn (ontologically) around the
observer. Such restriction is what I meant by the maxim

always leave a way out for the people you are

Our colleague Rane Willerslev (2013) has recently
published a paper titled Taking Animism Seriously, but
Perhaps Not Too Seriously? in which he takes issue with
the idea, by observing that among the Yukaghir,
ridiculing the (animal etc.) spirits is integral to their
game of hunting; the Yukaghir know that spirits are an
illusion, but they ironically go along with it. We should
not take indigenous animism (for example) too
seriously, he concludes.
It means to learn to be able to speak well to the people
you study, to employ a central concept and concern of
Bruno Latour to speak about them to them in ways
they do not find offensive or ridiculous.
They do not need to agree with you completely they
will never do anyway; all we require is that they find
our description a good enough one. It will always be a
caricature of themselves, with certain traits
exaggerated, others downplayed, certain points
overstretched, others minimised, and so on.
Ethnographers are not photographers they are
portrait artists.
The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo:
she succeeded in getting its body tucked away, comfortably enough,
under her arm, with its legs hanging down, but generally, just as she
had got its neck nicely straightened out, and was going to give the
hedgehog a blow with its head, it would twist itself round and look
up in her face, with such a puzzled expression that she could not
help bursting out laughing: and when she had got its head down,
and was going to begin again, it was very provoking to find that the
hedgehog had unrolled itself, and was in the act of crawling away:
besides all this, there was generally a ridge or furrow in the way
wherever she wanted to send the hedgehog to, and, as the doubledup soldiers were always getting up and walking off to other parts of
the ground, Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very
difficult game indeed. (Alice in Wonderland, ch. 8).

The problem is, unfortunately, that one often has ones

head hacked off in the game. But thats what we were
here for in the first place, as anthropology is always
about sticking one's neck out through the looking-glass
of ontological difference.